May 8, 2017

Can we control our feelings?

The Bible sometimes commands us to feel certain ways: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). And, sometimes we are commanded not to feel certain ways: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious” (Matthew 6:25). The messages from our culture seem to tell us that this is impossible. “Listen to your heart,” we hear. “I can’t help feeling this way,” they say. Can we really control our feelings, or must we be controlled by them?

Let’s take a simple case: If I try to run for a mile, I get a few hundred yards and I want to quit. Used to be I could push through two miles, but I haven’t trained at that for a couple years. I don’t want to feel like giving up. I want to be able to just tell that part of my brain to shut up and I’m not about to die. But it doesn’t work just doing it the once. One of the things that happens when you train to run is that you practice ignoring that desire to quit. After a while, your body gives up and compensates for running and your feelings no longer tell you you’re dying. And, it doesn’t work doing it just the once. When I ran, I was doing it two or three times a week for a half-hour at a time.

“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

There’s a good reason Paul is always comparing the Christian life to athletics. We have to train ourselves spiritually as an athlete trains physically.

See also Psalm 42:5, where the Psalmist preaches to his own soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” He does not just allow his soul to feel downcast, but he rebukes and exhorts himself to feel differently.

If our thoughts are to be conditioned toward righteousness, we have to train that and we have to understand that it is training. It will not happen by accident. It will likely not be overnight. It may be frustrating. But, if you belong to Christ, He will not give up on you.

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